NIH announces plans to shrink inside research

May 05, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The National Institutes of Health, the world's largest research institution, announced yesterday that it would revamp its $1.2 billion-a-year internal research program to make it smaller and to give it a more competitive atmosphere.

In a news conference, the institutes' director, Dr. Harold E. Varmus, said that in making the changes he was following the advice of a committee that had examined the quality of the research being done inside the NIH.

The NIH also grants about $8.7 billion a year for research carried out at universities and other institutions around the United States.

In recent years, outside scientists have stepped up their criticism of the internal research program as money for external research has become tighter, and fewer external proposals judged worthwhile get financing. Now only 15 percent of the proposals judged good to excellent get grants.

Among the criticisms of the internal research program have been that the quality of scientists has declined and that a patchwork tenure system has led to some top-flight scientists being lost.

Last year the House Appropriations Committee requested the review of the in-house research program, which was done by a committee of 10 members from outside the NIH.

The health institutes in Bethesda employ about 1,300 tenured scientists; an additional 2,100 scientists are not tenured. Historically, they have produced some of the nation's finest research, the report says, both in quantity of papers published and in number of citations of that work by other scientists, a measure of quality. Thirteen Nobel Prize laureates have worked in the institutes' internal research program.

Dr. Paul A. Marks, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and one of the two principal authors of the report, acknowledged that "there has been perhaps some slippage in quality" of research at the NIH. He said the institutes, which are made up of more than a dozen separate units, lacked agency-wide standards on hiring and other quality issues and "lost to some extent the ability to keep quality as the prime focus."

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